dictatorshipoftheconsumer

I was reading Madeline’s post about the power of user-generated production, and something in the post struck a chord with me: users today are more powerful than ever. Like Yelp, a great deal of this century’s largest websites and services – Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Tumblr, Yelp, Reddit, Wikipedia, etc. – depend on a process of collective production, wherein the services and web content are produced live by users, their interactions with one another, and the aggregation thereof. Even services whose content are not produced by users often integrate elements of user feedback, such as reviews and comments in online marketplaces and newspapers. In many cases, it is the user provided information on a website (such as Amazon) which will dictate what item, restaurant, or article appears highlighted to the reader.

This gives consumers – or rather, consumers in aggregate – considerable sway over what is considered part of the popular culture, what is considered a good or bad product, worth paying attention to or not, overpriced or cheap, so on and so forth. We evaluate quality by numbers, and we vote with clicks – views, likes, shares, retweets, upvotes, and stars. What trends on Twitter, Youtube, and Reddit now becomes the opening segment on cable news. The collective evaluations on Yelp shift the flow of money from 1-starred to 5-starred establishments. And the toilsome labor of countless editors – both anonymous and user-named – produces the great public work that is Wikipedia – a product of users, by users, for users.

The argument is brought up, however, that these collective expressions by the consumers are really the tools of businesses to advance their own agenda. Every application nowadays insists that you grant it permission to rent your Facebook profile as an advertisement for itself, and websites (especially news sites) have made their content increasingly share-able across various social networks to garner as many valuable page views as they can. To “Like” a page on Facebook is akin to subscribing for a series of ads. And of course, Yelp, IMDB, and other review and rating aggregation sites put out of work otherwise professional critics and provide no compensation for the free labor provided by the user-reviewers.

But who did the critics really work for, other than a small set of media elite and their consideration of whose tastes and preferences were worth rubber stamping with a critic’s column? Now the process of determining which movies and restaurants are “the best” is conducted democratically by the aggregation of the people’s  opinions – being informed by one’s cultural equals, rather than one’s cultural superiors. Meanwhile on the social networks, businesses will certainly make their own Pages and Twitter accounts to promote their brand. But the concept of social media is so wound up with marketing campaigns aimed by businesses at consumers, it’s easy to forget that social media is also being leveraged to great effect for customer service, and accommodating the demands of consumers. And while customer feedback on Facebook Pages and Twitter Feeds may superficially appear to be free market analysis for businesses, there’s a substantial difference between collecting the results of a prepared survey to assess (often ineffectively) customer “satisfaction” or  market trends, and reacting to the fiery Tweet of a scorned airline passenger whose words are rapidly gaining traction with other would-be customers.

Indeed, the direction of human culture has never more been held in the hands of the consumer. Where once consumers sought to assimilate into a prescribed television culture, television now seeks to emulate  consumers’ user-created digital culture. The power of people in numbers has carried over onto crowdsourcing platforms such as IndieGoGo and Kickstarter, where consumers control entirely whether a new product, business, service, or project will even launch. Consumer attitudes have forced manufacturers and businesses into offering healthier, more environmentally friendly products; and even plays a political role in influencing businesses’ stances on issues such as gay marriage (as in the case of General Mills and others). And as mentioned before, news agendas are more and more informed by what’s generating attention on social media – the hub of consumer cultural production.

But while it may be comforting to think of culture as becoming more and more democratic, and consumers as attaining more and more self-determination, it’s important to remember that the large group is always outmaneuvered by the small. The very breadth and diversity of consumer culture – which used to be held at bay by cultural boundaries designated by the elite – threatens to render consumers impotent, while the narrow and directed will of industry lobbyists claim the most policy changes in Washington. In order to achieve substantial, long-lasting improvements – such as reducing carbon emissions and global warming – consumers need to speak with one voice, act as one body. One person compelling himself to recycle alone will accomplish nothing to combat climate change, but a large association of people agitating for recycling at an institutional (even societal) level can accomplish a much greater change.

To truly establish a dictatorship of the consumer, it is first necessary for consumers to be organized and trained to quickly react and push back against the movements of producers, manufacturers, and business owners. And the most effective way for this to be done is to have a committee of men and women, representing various consumer interests, to helm a larger effort at organizing the masses of consumers into one, united movement. But alas, that is a subject for another time.

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